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It was January 21st and no one should die so young. Jonas Welsh was not as young as some but forty-two seemed like half a life to him. And to his family.
And all felt cheated.
Jonas knew his time was near. Conversation about the weather and what they had done that day was replaced by hushed tones, and his wife and kids took turns sitting with him. Counselors asked him questions. What was he most proud of? Was there anything he wished he had done?
They filled in the answers for him. He couldn’t see how any of that helped anyone and if they were really as compassionate as they were supposed to be, they’d just sit there and say, Wow, this sucks and leave it at that. But it did prompt him to remember a past hidden from all, long forgotten even by him.
When his best bud visited on what would be his final morning on earth, Jonas shooed everyone from the room and pulled his friend close. I want you to promise you’ll do something for me.
Of course, whatever you need.
There’s a box at the back of my closet. Please mail it, Jonas said. Today.
To where? his friend asked.
Jonas leaned over and opened the nightstand drawer. Tucked inside a Stephen King paperback that he would never finish was a wrinkled, college-ruled slip of paper. His shaking hands pulled it out and pushed it into his friend’s hand.
Done, his friend said.
It was January 25th and Elaina McKenzie had never married. The shoebox-sized parcel was left on her doorstep, waiting for her return, getting rained on. The neighbor forgot to get the mail that day. Great. Thanks. She swung her backpack higher over her shoulder so it wouldn’t flop and she grabbed the box. She crossed the threshold, dropped her bags and glanced at the return label. She did not recognize the name or the address but whatever. It wasn’t like she was a congressional rep where she had to worry if it was anthrax.
She sunk into the couch and took a deep breath. Home smelled good. After three months in the poorest sections of Ecuador, home was comforting. And safe. Photojournalism was as exhausting as it was satisfying.
She set the package on her lap and stared at it as if she could mentally see what was inside. Finally, she pulled at the wrapping and revealed that it was, indeed, a shoebox. It was old. Really old and held together at the corners with gray duct tape. Who would send me something like this? She pulled at the tape that bound the top and her breath stopped. Oh. My. God. Her fingers riffled through a stack of letters, all addressed to her. But she had never received these letters; they were not even postmarked. These envelopes were not familiar. But the handwriting was. Jonas. A folded note sat on top. Her heart pounded and there was a hum in her ears as she fanned the envelopes on the couch. Elaina hesitated with the note in her hand. Her palms didn’t sweat in the middle of an Ecuadorian forest but they did now.
"If you are receiving this box, most likely I’m already gone. I’d been sick
for the past six months with lung cancer.”
“My life after you was full and happy, and I truly hope yours was as well.
I know you never found anyone for any length of time after us. Call it stalking.
But you were a thread of my life that was difficult to sever.
What you have before you is my collection. I thought it was about
time I mailed these letters. For me, you were always out there, somewhere.
If I wrote a letter, I felt I was still talking to you, confiding in you.
And you helped me out on more than one occasion
without you even knowing it. Even the decision to marry Anne.
You see, it didn’t matter if the letters I wrote never saw a stamp.
You were there.
I understand why you broke it off. You had to travel and you loved it.
I know you loved me, too. At least I hoped you did.”
I did, Jo.
“What I think you didn’t see at the time is that the heart expands to love.
You felt you had to choose. You didn’t have to.
I would have waited. I always would have waited.
So here are the letters to you that I never mailed.
There was always space in my heart for you, a corner that no one ever filled.
The heart is never full.
And one final thought. Jump, my Elaina. Take that leap.
Reach out if someone is there waiting.
All my love,
Elaina sobbed for a solid hour. She recalled how she had broken it off with him because she wanted to take that two month assignment in the Galapagos and then three months in Venezuela. She hadn’t realized she didn’t have to choose. Even though he said he would wait. Idiot. At forty years old, she now realized that she can love deeply in different ways on many levels. The folly of youth. Elaina wept over the letters and her tears turned the ink into tiny, indecipherable puddles. Her travel photos on the wall were little comfort to her now.
It was February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and Elaina had a date. It was a fifth date, actually. Dinner went well and the conversation was easy. The silence was comfortable, and she judged how well a date was going if she could be in his presence and not feel as if she needed to be a camp counselor. There were very few people she had ever wanted to spend more than two hours with and this date was exceeding four. Now for the bad news. Over a shared dessert, she told him she was leaving next week for two months for a small village in Mumbai.
She smiled and her eyes burned with tears when he said, “I’ll wait.”